SAFe Isn't

Bubble wrapped chiled

I frequently find myself in conversations about Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and its utility or lack thereof. My opinions are based on both direct experiences in an organization that started using it and from comparing notes with colleagues in other large organizations, including many who are SAFe certified. This is my attempt to explain why I hold the opinion I hold and to challenge SAFe apologists to stop hand waving the criticisms away.

Tl; dr: SAFe bad.

My experience with SAFe began after it was inflicted upon my organization as a method of scaling the pockets of agile experiments. The organization was a global enterprise with thousands of developers and multiple divisions and product lines. In an organization like this, moving from waterfall development (we even went through PMI training) to an agile workflow can be a challenge. At the time, I worked in an area that was organized in a way that should have been the sweet spot for SAFe. We had hundreds of developers on several project teams working as feature factories on a shared codebase. We had a large number of SAFe consultants working to “transform” our area as well as other areas of the enterprise.

After a couple of years, our outcomes still were not very agile. we had added several new jobs for ex-project managers to manage the layers of processes for coordinating teams. We also had the two standard SAFe cadences. Every team was required to execute Scrum with 2-week sprints. Every 10 weeks we had a 2-day meeting to plan the next “Production Increment”. There we would plan what features would be delivered in the next 10 weeks and when those features would be delivered. The latter was to ensure that the hard dependencies between teams would align to the right “Release Train.” On the surface, this might sound like success and I’m always curious when people claim they have successfully implemented SAFe if this is their definition of success. However, that outcome was a complete failure. Let’s look at why.

Fake Improvement

Management felt they had control over the situation and that things were less chaotic. There were 10 weeks of planned work aligned to deliver dependencies in a coordinated manner and 2-week sprints to track the planned against delivered. Project managers were replaced with “program managers” and “product owners” who still reported to the PMO. It also created the new “Release Train Engineer” role to coordinate the large, multi-team scheduled releases every 10 weeks. Establishing these cadences and these roles prevented any further improvement. Why?

First, the PI cadence gave the PMO what they felt comfortable with; “Agile Transformation” without the risk of disrupting project plans. However, five 2-week sprints with processes to align dependencies is just a waterfall Gantt chart. It fails for the same reason waterfall and all fake agile fail, it assumes things will turn out as planned. Product development is not deterministic and laying out a determinist plan is objectively the wrong path to delivering a successful product. Reality is far more complex and the smart assumption is that things will NOT turn out as planned because proper product development is hypothesis-driven. The outcome was that we still delivered late but now had more process overhead, more management layers, and more meetings. However, the PMO felt better.

Next, the “Release Train Engineers”. These were not engineers. They were responsible for holding teams accountable that all of the required hard dependencies aligned for the next “release train”. The fact that this coordination is needed is an architectural smell, not a feature. If we have hard dependencies between teams (more than one team must deploy at the same time) then those teams can only deliver at the speed of the slowest team. That’s not the worst problem. Operational stability is. No team can fix anything safely without validating with the other teams. During a production incident, this is a major problem. When we try to handle this with process, it hides the real problem and the problem never gets better. If your job is to manage this process, then you have no incentive to point out the problem. Trains are the least agile form of moving freight and are only used for very large batches. Large batches are the antithesis of the goal of product development. Software ain’t coal.

Things SAFe Apologists Say

“I’m sorry you had a bad experience. It sounds like SAFe wasn’t implemented properly in your organization.”

Given the number of people reporting bad outcomes, perhaps the SAFe certification process needs more rigor? Currently, it appears to be structured to generate certification income rather than industry improvement. The versioning scheme is brilliant. “Oh, you’re only SAFe 4.0? We are on 5.0 now! Make sure and pay to upgrade.” A friend told me that he got certified and then invited to spend ~$300 to renew his certification the following year. He declined.

“What you experienced was just ‘shu’, the learning stage. As your organization learns, you are expected to move on to ‘ha’ and then finally to ‘ri’ when you master it and stop using the framework when you find that the framework is too restrictive!”

Except that the starting point creates middle management jobs that aren’t needed when you get to the end and have loosely coupled product teams. Except that the goal is mastering the framework because that’s what people are rewarded for. Therefore, improvement will stagnate as soon as those jobs become entrenched because making things better eliminates the need for those jobs. The starting point also removes ownership from teams that you will find difficult to get back. Teams simply become “accountable.” This disengages motivation. It’s FAR more effective to show people where they are in relation to “good” and help them along the path than to spoon-feed “this is the next step”. The only people who benefit from hand-holding are the people paid to hold hands. We can skip to the end by relentlessly improving the actual problems that prevent us from getting to “good”.

“People bashing SAFe are just trying to get attention because it’s trendy to bash SAFe.”

There are more interesting things to talk about to get attention. ML is much more trendy. If you put your hand in a fire and get burned, is it attention-seeking to warn others so they don’t need to learn the lesson from direct experience? Using the experience of others is less painful. I personally push back on SAFe because of how long it delayed improvement in the organization I worked for and how fast we were able to improve business outcomes and team morale when we focused on solving the problems rather than applying a process framework to band-aid them.

“SAFe is like a recipe book. You just pick the recipes you need!”

SAFe is exactly like a recipe book that contains recipes for coq en vin, beef Wellington, tres leches cake, how to reconstitute powdered eggs for 2000 people, and the correct levels of arsenic to use to avoid killing someone instantly.

“There are some really good things in SAFe”

There sure are and I can point to the original sources for all of those good practices SAFe has cargo-culted. It’s entertaining to be part of driving a good practice and see SAFe adopt, brand, and sell it later. The “value add” that SAFe brings is mixing those good practices with a bunch of bad practices and charging people to get a badge for LinkedIn. It’s a minefield for people to navigate. If you already know how to cook well, then you don’t need the book. If you don’t, then you’ll serve reconstituted eggs with arsenic seasoning.

The goal of SAFe is SAFe, not better value delivery. You can tell by what metrics they value.

Measuring Competency: Achieving business agility requires a significant degree of expertise across the Seven SAFe Core Competencies. While each competency can deliver value independently, they are also interdependent in that true business agility can be present only when the enterprise achieves a meaningful state of mastery of all. © Scaled Agile, Inc.”


How did we fix this nightmare? Instead of calling in more consultants, the area SVP gave us (the senior engineers) a mission, “we need to go to production every 2 weeks instead of every quarter.” If something hurts, do it more often! He gave us free rein to solve the problem and air cover to clear roadblocks. Our solution? “We need to implement continuous delivery and we need to go to production daily.” We re-architected the teams into product teams to mirror the application architecture we wanted. We converted hard dependencies to soft dependencies with a loosely coupled architecture built by teams formed around business domains. We used modern technical practices to handle dependencies in code instead of managing them. Instead of PI planning, we talked to each other and used API contract-driven development. Teams were able to deploy independently in any sequence and deliver against the area roadmap. Over time, the RTEs had to find positions elsewhere. We didn’t need them. Teams chose the method of working that worked best for them and they owned the outcomes of their decisions. Most importantly, we were delivering multiple times per week with higher morale and ownership.

“Ah, but have you tried LeSS?! LeSS will fix it!”

SAFe is the framework I’m most familiar with but I’m highly skeptical of any framework. I’ve enough experience to know that there are no cookie-cutter solutions and that improving flow requires context. Agile scaling frameworks are unlikely to result in agility because they lack context. Focus on improving organization architecture, application architecture, and developer experience and understanding there is no such thing as deterministic product development. We are delivering experiments to verify a value hypothesis. We fail less if we do that faster and smaller. Scaling makes things bigger. Don’t scale. Descale and improve throughput and feedback.

Written on May 6, 2022 by Bryan Finster.

Originally published on Medium